One of the most confusing concepts in Eastern spirituality for Westerners, particularly in Buddhism, is the idea that there is “no self.” The realization of no-self or non-self (anatta/anatman) seems to be one of the primary means to awakening, or enlightenment, in that tradition (nirvana).
This doesn’t make sense to us in the West. How could I not have a self? I am here aren’t I? I have a body and a mind and a life? It seems I do have a self. Who’s reading this? Who’s talking? Are these not selves? In many Christian traditions, such as Mormonism, there is even the teaching that the goal of life is to exalt or deify this personal self, that this ego-self and person that we think we are can achieve Godhood (theosis).
However, there are ideas in the biblical texts that reflect this Eastern concept of no-self, as well as in the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scripture. This may help us reconsider the traditional Christian/Mormon understanding of the self and deification. Becoming “egoless” or “selfless” may go much deeper than we have realized.
The idea of no-self is not that there is no such thing as a person, or an individual, or a body/mind. Rather, it is that the self, particularly the psychological self or ego that we think we are, is a kind of illusion. It appears to be something it is not. What is it not? Buddhist philosophy says that there is no permanent unchanging soul or essence in living things. I think this is Buddhism’s approach to get us to detach our identity from ego. The ego is not who we really are. We are not that self. The self we usually think we are is not permanent or eternal.
This seems to us (to our egos) to contradict our lived experience. We feel like we are a permanent self, unchanged from one day to the next; I’m the same person today that I was yesterday. But this is an error of perception, a kind of mirage, for we are changing continually every day, in every moment, not only physically, but psychologically, and in many other ways. Our “self” is continually being transformed, and will one day die. The self is also not separate from anything else or anyone else on a deeper level of reality. We are all highly interdependent and interconnected as parts of a greater Whole. The dualism we experience in ordinary consciousness is not fundamental in our being.
In Hinduism, liberation (moksha) is found through realizing the true Self, sometimes called self-realization or self-knowledge. This is not a realization of the egoic self, but the Self (Atman) that is one with the Supreme Being of the universe (Brahman). It is realizing that the whole universe is the Self, and the egoic self is a temporal manifestation of a much greater unified and interconnected process of Being. The true Self lives in all beings, and is the ground of their being, the underlying essence of all things. Realizing the true nature of the egoic self and the universal Self may come simultaneously; once we understand the true nature of our limited finite ego, then we may also come to know what we are at a deeper level, the true nature of the infinite eternal Self that is one with the Ultimate or Absolute, and is that Absolute.
So in both Buddhism and Hinduism we find this idea of recognizing the true nature of the ego-self, not as a permanent entity, but as a temporary manifestation of a much greater Reality. That greater Reality is who and what we really are. I think we find a similar idea in Christianity, that the Son is an “incarnation” of the Father, the Word made flesh. The ego, and its associated body/mind, emerges at birth, undergoes many changes during life, and passes away at death, but the deeper reality of our nature is in eternal union with the wider Cosmos, with Nature, with the Absolute, the One, the Divine essence of Reality, God.
We are not a person trying to become God, but we are already God playing the role of a person, and all people and lives, but we rarely come to know this directly. The ego-person that we think we are often obscures or veils this insight of our deeper Divine nature. Coming to know the truth of our mortal ego self, and the immortal Divine Self, seems to be the foundation of wisdom and spirituality, although it seems harder to detect in Western traditions.
In spirituality, the individual has two paradoxical and opposing natures. The ego is in a sense nothing, which I think is analogous to no-self, it being this finite, mortal, and a temporal being, and it is often the primary cause of suffering, error, sin, distress, pain, darkness, and death. And yet the individual is also how the Divine manifests itself in the world, the means through which the Divine acts, meaning that it contains within it the qualities of the Divine, being infinite, sacred, precious, truth, light, good, and life.
It is often the case that realizing the nature of the ego as nothing, as mortal, as being finite, through various kinds of deep suffering or ascetic practices, is the very thing that reveals the nature of the Divine Self, the deeper oneness of Self and God. And so instead of telling people that they are good, special, privileged, immortal, or otherwise being a comfort to the ego, as is often done in superficial spirituality and much of organized religion, genuine spirituality often takes the approach of helping people to realize their nothingness or no-self, their mortality, the fallen finite nature of their egoic psychological self, and breaking this identification with ego so as to reveal the true nature of Self or Being, which is awakening. There are many scriptures in the Bible which take this approach.
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In the beginning of Genesis there is the idea that humanity is made from the dust, and will return to the dust (Genesis 2:7; 3:19; 18:27). There is also the idea that all people are sinners and fallen by nature (Romans 3:23). There are more direct scriptures that note humanity’s nothingness:
Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.
All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.-Isaiah 40:15, 17
And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?-Daniel 4:35
Stories in the Book of Mormon combine the ideas that we are made of dust with the idea of nothingness. The people of King Benjamin realized the nothingness of their egos:
And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth…-Mosiah 4:2
King Benjamin reiterates their observation:
For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state…
…even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility…-Mosiah 4:5, 11
It is an “awakening” to realize the nothingness of the self, that it is not a permanent entity, that it is not our true identity. That self is a “fallen state” of consciousness, having become dualistic, and has attached identity to thoughts in the mind.
The Book of Mormon later repeats this:
O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth.-Helaman 12:7
In the case of the people of King Benjamin, it is only after they realized the nothingness of their egoic self, their mortal finite nature, or what I think is analogous to the Eastern concept of no-self, that they awakened to redemption, joy, peace, and love.
And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience…-Mosiah 4:3
They experienced at-one-ment, or oneness/nonduality, in God, being liberated from their sins, errors, delusions. I think the reason they felt this release or freedom is because they discovered their ultimate union in God, and their egos fell away from their consciousness. Their egos which carried all the weight of sin, error, shame, etc., were realized for the nothingness which they were, and they awakened to their deeper nature in God.
They called this faith in Christ, and salvation through Christ. As the Apostle Paul discovered, Christ is a name for that deepest being living within us, our true nature, our true Self as One in God, when the egoic “I” passes away (Galatians 2:20; cf. Acts 17:28). As long as they remembered the nothingness of their egos (or remained in the consciousness of no-self), they could find joy and peace, and be filled with God’s Love, being free of their egoic errors and guilt, the separateness that is the ego (Mosiah 4:12).
There is another similar story in Mormon scripture which repeats this pattern. It is found in the Book of Moses. Moses sees God face to face, and when he does so he also realizes the nothingness of the human ego:
Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.-Moses 1:10
In seeing the truth about his ego-self, Moses came to know the true Christ nature within him, being in “similitude of [the] Only Begotten” (Moses 1:6, 13, 16).
Moses later encounters Satan, who Moses says he can see “in the natural man” (Moses 1:14). Satan may be symbolic of his ego, the finite mortal self and psychological identity. This is called darkness (v. 15). It is by casting out Satan that “he beheld him not” (v. 22), or in other words, the ego fell away so that he was no longer conscious of it. This may be another way of symbolizing the realization of no-self, self-transcendence, or the nothingness of the ego, and in so doing Moses was filled again with the Spirit of God, and again beheld God’s glory (v. 24-25). He comes to know that he can act “as if [he] wert God” (v. 25). Moses realized the Divine Self, that God acts through him.
One of my favorite scriptures in the Book of Mormon is Mosiah 3:19, which is also from King Benjamin’s address:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.-Mosiah 3:19
The “natural man” (also called the “carnal mind”) I think is referring to the ego, our psychological self-identity, and this is an “enemy to God” (cf. Romans 8:7). It is an “enemy” because it is dualistic, and thinks it is something separate from God. It has been such an enemy since the “fall of Adam,” which Fall I suggest was the very construction of that self-identity in the mind, also known as self-awareness.
When the subject emerges in consciousness it sets itself up as an entity separate from God or the Ultimate Reality. This is the “original sin,” this is the first alienation from God, setting it in dualistic opposition to God, as something “other.” Only by this egoic identity yielding itself to the enticings of the Spirit (God), surrendering itself, “putting off the natural man,” do we realize the “Saint” within us, which is always at-one with God. It is innocent, like a child, submissive to Ultimate Reality, embracing reality as it is.
In my view, there is no deification or immortality of the personal self or egoic individual identity. This seems to be a common misunderstanding in traditional spirituality, perhaps a corruption by egos that wanted to be immortalized (see Isaiah 14:14; Moses 4:1). Rather, we seek to transcend this idea of our personal egoic self, which reveals our deeper truer Divine Nature which is already at-one in God or Ultimate Reality, already in perfect union with Nature and all beings, and has a nondual relationship to Ultimate Reality and the Universe. We realize we are that One.
Another term that Christians might recognize for this concept of no-self is “crucifixion,” a word that Paul seemed to use to point to this kind of selflessness (Gal. 2:20; Romans 6:6; Gal. 5:24). Through practices which help us to realize the nothingness of the egoic self, the natural man, or no-self, becoming truly “egoless” and “selfless,” we may come to recognize and realize the deeper Divinity within us, our true identity, our true Self, the Christ, the Atman, the Buddha-nature, the Truth of our reality in this Cosmos.